White Powder Still Making News 3 Years Later

It has been three years since anthrax infiltrated the U.S. mail system, and it's still on the minds of many as reports of white powder close offices, newspapers, postal facilities and mail firms around the country on a weekly basis.

Last week, eight employees at PEP Direct Inc., Wilton, NH, a direct marketing firm with nonprofit clients, underwent decontamination procedures and were taken to a nearby hospital after being exposed to a white powder found in an envelope in the company's mailroom. The facility remained closed for nearly 24 hours.

Tests on the powder came up negative for biological hazards, said Michael Mansfield, assistant fire chief at Nashua (NH) Fire Rescue, though the substance still had not been identified. The employees who were taken to the hospital were tested and released.

PEP Direct was established as PVA-EPVA Inc., the direct mail marketing and production arm for Paralyzed Veterans of America and Eastern Paralyzed Veterans Association. The company, which employs 400 people at its 150,000-square-foot Wilton operation, was acquired in May by Quadriga Art of New York, a privately owned marketing firm.

Since the anthrax scare in fall 2001, the U.S. Postal Service has received 20,000 calls related to the issue, the bulk of which came in 2002, “and they have been diminishing ever since,” USPS spokesman Gerry McKiernan said. In every case, “it's been a matter of some substance that appeared to be something it is not.”

In some cases, people mail flour or other white, powdery substances that escape from packages. In other instances, McKiernan said, the powder is coffee creamer or powdered sugar from a doughnut.

Also, for years, catalogs and magazines used talcum powder in their shipments, but many mailers now dye the powder a different color.

McKiernan said that when an employee in a postal plant is concerned about a white powder in their workspace, “we err on the side of caution. We have a process that we go through — identify, isolate and evacuate.” The process usually takes 20 minutes, and, as a result, “mail does not get delayed for any significant time.”

Other recent reports of white powder include:

· White powder was found on a pallet on the south loading dock at a postal annex in Waltham, MA, on Oct. 5. It tested negative and was deemed harmless.

· The Connecticut Department of Public Health headquarters in Hartford was evacuated Oct. 5 after a worker found a white powder while opening mail. Samples were sent to the state's public health laboratory for testing. The facility was later reopened.

· The area around the Bristol, CT, police department was on alert Oct. 4 after a man picked up an envelope at a post office and noticed powder on it. It was determined that the powder was Viagra pills that had been crushed in shipment.

· Four newspapers between Oct. 2 and 4 reported receiving letters containing white powder: The Charlotte (NC) Observer, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Cleveland Plain Dealer and Des Moines (IA) Register. In each case, the powder posed no threat to employees.

· Several mayors in Broward County, FL, received 25 envelopes filled with a white powder that turned out to be flour. Dane Swindell of Memphis, TN, was arrested in an unrelated incident and is being investigated in the matter.

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